Wouldja Believe? Smart Packaging Agents Can Help Avert Future Food-Safety Crisis
If, as Michael Doyle, the director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, says, "We have food-safety crisis on the horizon," technology might provide the means to avert it.
Consumers trust that packaged food is safe. Still, breaches in the food chain occasionally lead to such problems as the recent food-borne outbreaks in products from peanut butter to packaged vegetables. And that makes protection from foreign contaminants of utmost importance in packaging development.
A whole category of what is being called "smart packaging" is emerging, and it has the potential to change the way manufacturers can ensure the safety of their products. If you think of "smart" as meaning intelligent, clever or fresh, you would be right. Smart packaging can monitor food products with built-in sensors to tell us when what’s inside is past its prime or contaminated.
RFID's Find the Chink in the Armor—or the Supply Chain
One way conventional packaging becomes smart is by adding a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag or label such as those developed by Cambridge-based IDTech Ex. It has a functional characteristic that benefits the consumers by allowing producers to track and trace problems along the supply chain. Also, German researchers are developing RFID technology to measure, identify, and transmit the quality and conditions of meat throughout the supply chain. It could be done chemically, mechanically, or electrically to improve the effectiveness of the product.
Clemson University researchers are currently developing smart packaging technologies that add antimicrobial films to packaging material, such as FreshTags®, patented color indicators that sense the production of gases. For example, Clemson researchers found chemicals that react with the gases that cause a fishy odor in seafood by changing color to show the food product is no longer usable. "We are exploring how to integrate the FreshTags® technology into packaging materials to detect other potentially harmful compounds in food products," says Dr. Scott Whiteside, an associate professor at Clemson. A similar technology being developed in New Zealand, ripeSense™, uses a color-change smart indicator to show when fruit reaches optimum ripeness.
Embedded Antimicrobials Can Detect & Destroy Bad Bacteria
Another Clemson professor, Kay Cooksey, and her students are developing what they call "active packaging" using a material that gives off odor and flavors. They are also developing coatings that contain antimicrobial agents to go inside packaging to detect when bacteria levels reach a critical point and release the agents. They tested this technology with hot dogs using bacteria linked to food-borne outbreaks and successfully reduced bacteria for up to 21 days of storage. They are also looking into developing a material to release antimicrobial agents as vapor when activated, so that they are not in direct contact with food.
North Carolina-based Cox Technologies, Inc. has developed Vitsab®TTI, an enzyme-based time and temperature indicator that shows how long a temperature-sensitive food product has been exposed to specific temperatures during shipping or storage. Perishable foods can then be monitored to ensure that they have not been exposed to less-than-ideal temperatures that can cause spoilage.
There are also developments in oxygen-scavenging technologies, and the use of antimicrobial films and diagnostic packaging that provide color changes triggered by the presence of certain pathogens. There is even packaging that beeps as the product get closer to its use-by date.
Heat Your Coffee, Chill Your Beer
Then there is packaging that heats or cools your food for you. OnTech & Sonoco have developed a self-heating coffee container that uses a calcium-oxygen exothermic reaction to produce heat. Self-heating soup is available using the same technology and is available under the Chef Jay brand. At the other end of the temperature spectrum, there are self-cooling beer kegs. The world's first self-cooling keg has been developed by a German CS-Metaallbau Company using zeolite heat pump technology. The technology is licensed to Cool-System Bev. GmbH, and it gets beer to the proper drinking temperature of 6 degrees Celsius within 30-45 minutes.
But more than warming coffee or chilling beer, the future promises even more new technologies that when applied to food packaging will keep us safer. Perhaps soon, food-borne outbreaks will be avoided by applying such marvelous innovations.
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